LEADer/ Seeding Healthy Change

Ubud, Indonesia - 28 February 2015.  Meet Maria Loretha, a champion leader for healthy change in Eastern Indonesia. The eldest of five children, Maria grew up in West Kalimantan, home of Indonesia’s Dayak people. As a young child, she roamed the forest and learned how to farm, hunt and fish. Then her father, a judge, sent her to school in Java, where she also continued her eduction to university, and graduated from law school. Instead of becoming a lawyer or judge, however, she chose to become a radio announcer and she learned how to engage with the public.

When an economic crisis hit the region in 1997, Maria lost her job, and decided to move to her husband’s home in Adonara, off the island of Flores in Eastern Indonesia. It was there she found her passion. It started when a friendly neighbor offered her a plate of steamed sorghum with grated coconut. She fell in love with the taste, and then discovered that sorghum, a traditional food crop that is uniquely resilient to the harsh dry climate of the Eastern islands, was about to disappear from local diets, pushed out by the government’s mass promotion of rice during the past thirty years.

Maria decided to devote her energy to reach out to the local farmers and work with them to reintroduce sorghum, together with other traditional food crops—such as millet, barley, red and black rice, and corn—that are not only more nutritious than rice, but can also be harvested three times a year, compared to only once for paddy rice, which is limited by the region's adverse soil and water conditions.

Her first challenge was to find seeds. Taking the lead, she started traveling from village to village to find local seeds that had gone missing for decades. After visiting villages in several islands, she managed to collect seeds of up to 50 local varieties of sorghum seeds—and many other local seeds—and then helped farmers to organize themselves in small groups to recover and disseminate knowledge of how to use these seeds. 

Progress did not come easy, and Maria dug deeper to explore new skills to overcome several setbacks along the way. She learned to build coalitions to support the changes that she championed with so much passion. To support farmers, she set up a new foundation called Cinta Alam Pertanian (Love for Nature’s Farming), and she was able to win crucial support from the network of churches, including the local bishop, who chose to support her cause.

When the local government resisted her advocacy, she did not let herself get discouraged and set out to persuade the national government, where she discovered a small group of fellow champions starting a new program for local food called Go Local who were still unsuccessful at grassroots level. Linking up her resources with theirs, a national movement for introducing missing local crops kicked off in 2013 which Maria helped to catalyze, using her position as chair of the board of the Indonesian Farmers Alliance for Eastern Indonesia.

After working with more partners and supporters, Maria was invited as a keynote speaker in events across the country, and used her communication mastery to extend the reach of her advocacy beyond Eastern Indonesia’s islands to other regions, including her native Kalimantan. Benefiting from her public communication skills, farmers from each participating region started learning to take the lead in innovating and communicating their own local crop varieties and contributing their experience to a growing inter-island knowledge-sharing network. 

Maria also received support from PIKUL, a local community organization with a network in Eastern Indonesia. In 2011, she received the Academia Award for science and technical innovation of the province of East Nusa Tenggara, followed in 2012 by the Kehati Award for her persistence in conserving biodiversity. She has appeared on national television to share experience from her work on conserving and promoting local seeds, and was elected to the influential Ashoka fellowship of innovators for the public in 2013.

This month, her advocacy extended to the Slow Food Bali movement, where she spoke in Ubud to a community of healthy food enthusiasts led by Mary Jane Edleson, a culinary educator and herself a researcher on the use of sorghum, and facilitated by Mila Shwaiko, co-curator of TEDx Ubud.

As I listened to Maria telling her story and asked about her experiences, the power of her passion, communication, and persistence shone through—keys for success in her leadership journey that is underpinned by the love she feels for her work and for the people around her. Her eyes lit up as she shared her passion in words and gestures with the aspiring leaders gathered in the magnificent bamboo hall at Ubud's Bambu Indah eco restaurant.

Photos showing recovered sorghum varieties, and Maria explaining to volunteers of Slow Food Bali how to plant sorghum seeds.

Information for this leadership story from Slow Food Bali, Ashoka—Innovators for the Public, and the Jakarta Post, is gratefully acknowledged. 




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